This post was already long-overdue when I started writing it, more than a week ago. We were still enjoying our honeymoon/vacation -- but I was then struck down by a virulent sinus infection which I'm still battling. We're home again, and I'm diligently taking the Augmentin doled out to me by the good health professionals at Nantucket Cottage Hospital, despite the havoc that antibiotics wreak on the rest of my organism.
Where do I begin? We've been on belated honeymoon in Quebec, Vermont and Nantucket for the past couple of weeks, finally enjoying some real rest and relaxation after the hectic round of this spring's wedding parties, G's trade shows and business obligations and my usual crazed multi-tasking workload. We used my in-laws' home in Vermont as a midway stopping point for our trip, so driving to Quebec was at a relatively easy pace. The picture above is from our first stop, an "agrotourisme" farm/auberge in a region known as Quebec's Eastern Townships. To our city eyes, the area felt delightfully remote. As we drove through the countryside, we found that any town that had an actual restaurant was considered rather large: the resort town of Lake Megantic, for example, with 5,000 residents, was a veritable metropolis. Most places consisted of a gas station, perhaps an ice-cream stand and a few small businesses. One of the greatest treats for us was the nighttime sky, on the nights when it wasn't overcast. This region is designated as a "star preserve"; the local observatory has been working in tandem with the government so that municipal light fixtures give off the least possible ambient light, making the nighttime viewing spectacular indeed.
We found ourselves outside of a tiny town called Courcelles, on a farm that specializes in ducks and foie gras, as well as a stunning variety of produce from their organic garden, eggs from their own chickens and quail, and angora wool from their goats. The Auberge d'Andromède provides equestrian holidays for those interested in riding, or peace and tranquility for those who just want to get away from it all. Gilles is the chef, smoker of the house-smoked salmon you see above, and Gina, his very chic wife, guides riding tours and serves guests her husband's excellent breakfasts and table d'hôte dinners in a quaint sunporch dominated by this:
I can't tell you how happy it made me to eat two days worth of delectable meals (lake trout in citrus sauce with tiny potatoes and a veritable bouquet of garden vegetables; pancakes made with buckwheat flour milled in Courcelles and maple syrup from the érablière down the road, to name just a couple) sitting in the same room as this stove, with its ingenious warming cabinets and nook for salt and pepper shakers. The big dark Mason jars sitting on it are Gina's homemade raspberry conserve, made with berries grown on the farm's enormous patch of raspberry canes.
We went on to Quebec City, a locale new to both of us. G decided that it lends itself as the perfect setting for a movie with a serious car-chase sequence -- the hills are quite daunting. Our favorite experience in that area was actually outside of the city, exploring the glories of the Ile d'Orleans,and lovely parishes, and is devoted, as a whole, to (mainly organic) farming. We bought local hard cider to bring home as gifts, and drove around, reveling in the beautiful scenery, white farmhouses with red roofs, old stone churches and apple orchards, munching on berries bought from the some of the many, many farm stands. We learned that somehow, despite the inhospitable northern clime, the island enjoys 120 frost-free days per year. It has become "the garden" for all of Quebec City, a mere 15 minutes away. One imagines that a similar locale in the US would have already been turned into some sort of Hamptons clone-like resort, but not in Canada. This lovely place has obviously been preserved, with some nods to progress and tourism, in more or less the same state for what appears to be a long, long time. a beautiful island oasis in the middle of the St. Lawrence River. The island is divided into seven quaint
We enjoyed our time in a couple of Quebec City's fine B&Bs, where we found genial, helpful hosts, good accomodations and excellent breakfasts. But all in all, we were quite happy to move on, a few days later, to a favorite city -- Montreal. We stayed once again in the delightful auberge we discovered on our last trip, booking what we've come to think of as "our" room. This time we were able to enjoy our huge terrace overlooking the Parc de la Fontaine even more, simply by breakfasting there each morning. Since we'd never been to Montreal except in the depths of winter ice and snow, we enjoyed walking Mont Royal on this trip, and exploring the wonders of the Jean Talon market. We revisited some old haunts -- we couldn't leave without some smoked meat from Schwartz's, of course. We also made a few new culinary discoveries. I found Premiere Moisson -- and it will take all my restraint, the next time we're in Northern Vermont, to refrain from suggesting that we take a leetle three-hour drive to Montreal in order to pick up a box or two of pastries and some olive fougasse.
G's favorite new Montreal spot, and mine too, is outside the chic Plateau district. I had noticed that there were a number of North African cuisines represented in Montreal's restos, so I thought we'd try to find Tunisian food, something rare in NYC. I remember this food fondly from a summer in Aix-en-Provence, where I had a favorite Tunisian restaurant. I picked a spot, and we reserved a table at L'Etoile de Tunis, which was a bit off the beaten path, in the Petite Italie district. Petite Italie seems more of a blend of many ethnic cultures rather than a neighborhood devoted solely to things Italian. It was fun to get away from the tourist-centered neighborhoods and enjoy what seemed a more working-class locale. One of the things we love about Canadian cities is that even in what are the more "downscale" neighborhoods, the quality of life seems good. People have space, little gardens, and apartments with generous terraces abound everywhere, instead of being the luxury that they are in NYC. The gap between socio-economic groups doesn't seem nearly so pronounced as it does here. It appears to us, just from looking at housing stock and neighborhoods, that there's a continuum that runs not from obscene wealth to abject poverty, as it does here, but that economic class seems to range more simply from upper middle class, to middle class and lower middle/working class. And I know I'm coming from an outsider perspective, but we never picked up on painful tension in any of these neighborhoods, unlike when you walk through NYC's poorer districts. We saw a few (very few, actually) people who were homeless or drunk or otherwise in trouble, but no-one, anywhere, ever accosted us or anyone else that we saw for spare change. Oh -- except for the guy who squeegeed our windshield -- and did a great job. As we handed over some change, G sighed that even unsolicited squeegeeing is done better in Canada.
But I digress, as is too often the case. L'Etoile de Tunis is in the aforementioned working class neighborhood, not on any tourist map at our disposal -- no obstacle to intrepid explorers like ourselves. What did take us aback was that we hadn't needed the reservation, not at all. At 8:00 p.m. on a weeknight, we were the only people in the restaurant. "Uh-oh," I thought. "Is this going to be a disaster?" Quite the contrary. I don't know where the rest of Montreal and its visitors were that night, but they were missing out. L'Etoile de Tunis was everything we'd hoped, and then some. I started with a brik a l'oeuf, a crunchy triangular pastry filled with a cooked egg ("coulant," as the proprietress specified) and aromatic green herbs. Delicious. G had ordered gratinéed garlic toasts to start, and then his favorite merguez sausages and frites. He told me he was playing it safe, since these were things he knew he'd like. But the stand-out was my main course -- the chef's couscous, a neat mound of reddish grains, studded with large chunks of the traditional seven vegetables. On this lay a tiny loin lamb chop, skewered lamb, chicken shish taouk, and merguez, all smelling delightfully smoky from the charcoal grill where they had recently done time. It was all so fresh, so good. Even the boneless, skinless chicken breast of the shish taouk was juicy and extraordinarily flavorful -- not dry, not a bit of it. On the side was a bowl of rich, meat-and-vegetable scented broth, only slightly tomato-enriched, which I could have eaten by itself as a soup. Even better was a bowl of the freshest harissa (spicy red-pepper sauce) I've ever tasted, which which we both anointed our dinners . G loved his dish, but couldn't stop dipping into mine, either. And of course, we were hard-pressed to spend $50 on dinner for two, even with a generous tip. I tactfully asked the kind proprietress in my halting French about where her clientele might be, saying that everything was so good that I wondered why she wasn't mobbed. She shrugged, saying that Montrealers seem to consider this a more wintry cuisine. Perhaps, although most of the meals we'd had in the Plateau were pretty hearty for summertime. In any case, the question got her talking, and she described how everything in the restaurant was made fresh and in-house.
Which inspired me, the next day, to purchase a big bag of non-instant couscous and some spices at the Jean Talon market. I wanted some of the big vat of fresh harissa that I found in the refrigerated case of olives in the little Arab shop on the market's perimeter, but knew that it would spoil before we could get it home, since we had at least two full travel days before us as well as a stay on Nantucket.
Where, as mentioned earlier, I became ill. This was particularly sad since I had come primarily to feed and swaddle and cuddle my new niece and nephew. Since I was deeply afraid of passing on germs, I kept my distance from the babes, who are growing like weeds, and just tried to relax and enjoy one ocean swim before I got too sick, several delicious fresh fish dinners, the best corn and tomatoes we've had all season, and the pleasure (after 10 days of restaurant meals) of making an apple-plum crumble, a nectarine-blueberry crumble, and a rustic plum tart for various groups of assembled family and friends. As soon as the babies come home to NY, I plan to make up for lost time.